On the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

At the Library of Law and Liberty this morning, I have a post on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom of 1786, the anniversary of which America marked last week. Among other things, I describe how Jefferson deftly combines Enlightenment and Evangelical Christian arguments to support religious freedom. Here’s a sample:

It’s fascinating, therefore, to go back and read the statute in its entirety. Three things stand out. First is the skillful way Jefferson combines two dramatically different strands of thought to justify religious freedom—Enlightenment Liberalism and Evangelical Christianity. (As a good lawyer, Jefferson knew how to make an argument in the alternative). “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself,” the preamble declares; “she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.” Through free debate, people could reason their way to truth, in religion as in other matters. No justification existed, therefore, for prohibiting people from expressing their religious opinions and trying to persuade others.

This Enlightenment defense of free inquiry was not likely to convince everyone, though, so Jefferson added an argument from Evangelical Christianity as well. Religious freedom was the plan of “the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.” Establishments had resulted in “false religions over the greatest part of the world,” including, presumably, Catholicism and Islam. The point was clear: a good Evangelical Christian should support religious freedom, for Christianity’s sake. This combination of Evangelical and Enlightenment reasoning is a major theme in American church-state law, and it’s interesting to see how far back it goes.

That Jefferson, he was one shrewd lawyer. You can read the whole post here.

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